A Place to Pump at Work: It’s a Right, Not a Perk

>>Breast milkWhen my first child was five months old I started work at a grocery store. It was the type of super-happy, super-crunchy establishment that just makes you want to knit your own cloth bags and hand-grind your own chia seeds. I was transitioning out of a white collar job to one with more flexibility, and I was pretty nervous about fitting in and learning the ropes.

During my first week, every time I asked a fellow employee where moms working at the store pumped I was greeted with an uncomfortable, blank stare.

“We haven’t ever had someone who did that,” responded one manager. Another suggested I use my car. Without a battery pack for my electric pump, my car was out of the question, and using one of the store’s two bathrooms seemed inconvenient and gross.

Out of desperation I set up a small privacy fort in the breakroom, built from easels and a few old pieces of plywood. I would secret myself back there during my scheduled lunch break, ignoring the curious stares as I clawed my way out once the tiny bottles were full. One day a young man moved the easel aside and stumbled in on me. I was vaguely irritated, but that was nothing compared to the next day when the store manager pulled me aside and explained I had made the young man uncomfortable.

Since I refused to move my pumping efforts to a bathroom, I was sentenced to express milk in an unfinished attic above the store, up a rickety ladder. At the time I had no idea if there were laws to protect me, or whether I was pushing my limits by expecting to find a place safely pump milk to feed my infant.

By the time I had my second child, all of that had changed. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, which included provisions to >>protect nursing mothers at work. When I was ready to return to work at my grocery store I called ahead and asked if they had sorted out the nursing room situation yet. It took them two weeks, but they managed to put up a retractable blind in a dedicated private spot. Management attitudes were still no more enlightened — one manager would pointedly look away when he saw me carrying >>my breast pump — but having the law behind me meant I felt confident to take my breaks in privacy.

Nearly two thirds of working mothers return to work before their baby hits 6 months — a time when many children are still completely reliant on formula or breast milk. Supporting women as they seek privacy for pumping or a spot for milk storage isn’t just the law; it’s good business. In North Carolina, women are required to have a private place to pump that includes a power outlet, and they are required to be provided breaks during which to pump.

>>One study found that nursing moms miss fewer days of work and that women who work in pump-friendly workplaces are more loyal to their employers. It doesn’t take much—just ask returning moms what they need and support them during the short time while they need to pump.

Not all employers are as reticent as mine was. I’ve known friends who have been provided pumping rooms with TVs, minifridges, and rocking recliners.

TELL US ABOUT IT: What has your employer done to welcome nursing moms back into the workplace? How would you make sure pumping moms get to express in peace? 

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  1. Dr. Ashley Simons-Rudolph-Director, NCSU Women's Center

    NC State recognizes and supports women and families. Together with many campus partners and the NCSU Council on the Status of Women and the Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity, the NC State Women’s Center promotes pro-lactation space policy http://www.ncsu.edu/faculty_senate/resolutions/2006-2007/resolution-6-2008-2009.php ,a specific (and growing!) list of dedicated lactation spaces on campus http://www.ncsu.edu/human_resources/benefits/Wolflife/lactation.php ,and a website of resources of interest to students, faculty, and staff http://oied.ncsu.edu/faculty/resources-for-women-and-families/ .
    The NC State Women’s Center hosts a cozy, clean, and private lactation space in Harrelson Hall and provides logistical support to other universities wanting to set up similar spaces on their campus. We hope we can be one small part of a community that values women and families in our community. If you have any questions about how to set up space, best practices, etc. please don’t hesitate to ask.

  2. Allison George

    This is such a basic and no-brainer accommodation. (Or, it should be.) I’ve traveled (for work) with breast-feeding women who have pumped while abroad, stored their milk in hotel room refrigerators and then taken it home with dry ice. I’m in awe of their efforts and rather encouraged by how helpful some hotels have been.

  3. penne sandbeck

    When my daughter was born in 2006, I worked for a state agency. I was lucky that my supervisor worked with me to extend my maternity leave a few extra weeks so that I could keep my daughter at home till she was four months old. My husband and I worked half-days those weeks and we each took four-hour shifts at home during the day; I was thus able to nurse her and stockpile breast milk in the freezer. I chose her daycare center carefully, so that she was nearby and I could be there on my breaks. This all more or less worked for her first four months. There was one very awkward incident where I had an offsite meeting with my boss and a colleague, and had to pump in the truck after the meeting; interestingly enough, my boss, a woman, was about as uncomfortable as I was, but the colleague–a man whose wife had breastfed both their daughters–was fine. I wish I could say that the remaining five-and-a-half months that I was able to breastfeed had worked as well. I will give my boss credit; she was very thoughtful about not sending me out on long field trips during this time, and I did projects close to home. I did my part as well, and I achieved a good balance between my home and work duties. On the other hand, there was no designated place in the office I could pump, and my daughter’s having moved to a daycare center 20 minutes away put a lot of pressure on me to produce enough ahead of time so that she wouldn’t ever be in a bind. A co-worker stepped forward and offered me her office because my pump was just not working hard enough in my car (pumping in a car is a pretty depressing business, anyway), and I will be forever grateful to her. But there were some days she needed her room, so I was either in the car, barricaded in the bathroom, or leaning against a door in an empty office, praying someone wouldn’t come in. And some days, I didn’t pump because there was just no way to do it without looking like I wasn’t holding up my end of things at work; I would have pretty messed-up ducts by the end of those days. Granted, it was 2006 and I was working for a state agency that was not exactly “granola” but I felt angry and defeated by the end, as my milk supply gave out. I know it was stress, and I’m sure the straight pumping and missing a day or two a week, vs. pumping but also getting to nurse during the day played a role in things, too. And I was not the kind of person who made a situation like this “drama”–but now, if I were going through this again, I think I would raise hell. All in all, my little girl got almost ten months of breastfeeding and hopefully my former workplace is a little more enlightened about these matters. The people at the office who helped me continue to nurse my daughter–I will always appreciate what they did. However, a workplace policy providing a place for employees to pump (or even nurse!) would have been the best thing for everybody.

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